Gramophone, June 2011
A second anthology presents a selection of music from across the centuries
Spanning over 1000 years of choral music, the Armonico Consort’s second "Naked Byrd" anthology offers a thoroughly spellbinding programme, perfectly suited to the lofty and cavernous acoustic of Moreton Morrell’s Real Tennis Court, situated to the east of Stratford-upon-Avon. This must be the sweetest and least sweat-inducing "racket" ever to have been heard within its reverberant walls! The choral blend and recorded balance are of demonstration quality.
The music has a predominantly slow harmonic pulse, where vocal lines can float, suspensions can melt and the listener can relax and marvel at the singers’ superb breath control and rock-steady intonation. The mixture of the familiar and the new, ancient and modern is well integrated, the trio of world premieres fitting in with ease. The opening Marian antiphon, attributed to the 11th- century scholar Hermann Contractus, calms even the most troubled spirit and provides a beautiful appetiser to the first sublime moment of the disc, Christopher Monks’s new take on Tallis’s famous theme. Kelly McCusker’s violin obbligato (worthy of Jan Garbarek himself) is topped off by Anna Sandström’s effortless soprano solo. Another soprano soloist, Kirsteen Rogers, excels in the second of two Hildegard of Bingen pieces, O virtus sapientiae.
Barber’s Adagio reworking and Tavener’s Funeral Ikos are expertly paced with climaxes beautifully judged, Another pair of modern gems are David Buckley’s setting from Isaiah, Strengthen ye, and Jonathan Roberts’s miniature Never seek to tell thy love. Another Blake classic, Tavener’s The Lamb, is sung with great affection and brings this disc of unending delight to a fine close.
MusicWeb International, May 2011
This is the second CD to be inspired by Armonico Consort’s ‘Naked Byrd’ concert programme, which, to quote the Signum publicity material, ‘features music by Tavener, Purcell, Barber and Byrd, composers who wore their hearts on their sleeves, and whose art saw their emotions laid bare, in an atmospheric concert where magical musical moments are intertwined with sublime passages of plainchant and violin improvisation’ It’s similar in manner to Volume 1 which I reviewed in May 2010.
Let me say at once that, having cut though the publicity hype, I found the whole of this programme as beautiful and as excellently sung as the first. It also introduces the listener to some unfamiliar music, but let me also get two small complaints out of the way. The first is that 53 minutes is rather short value for a full-price CD, however good.
Secondly, as was the case with Volume 1, someone picking up the CD in a browser might buy it on impulse under the impression that the music is all or mostly by Byrd, when, in fact, there is only one 4-minute item by him. I’m afraid that the titles of Naked Byrd 1 and 2 do rather beg the question.
What we do have more than compensates – a very wide-ranging and eclectic programme of some of the most beautiful music ever composed, from the opening Salve Regina, attributed to the 11th-century composer Hermannus Contractus, via the two works by the wonderful Abbess Hildegard, to whose music I could listen all night, through the renaissance and baroque, Samuel Barber’s own arrangement of his Adagio and two by-now familiar John Tavener works, to three new compositions here receiving their first outings.
One of these new works is a re-working of an old one by the Consort’s artistic director Christopher Monks, revisiting the same piece from Thomas Tallis’s English settings in Archbishop Parker’s Psalter which Vaughan Williams employed for his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. The result is not quite as magical as that VW composition, partly because Monks stays closer to the original – Tallis was stuck with setting some fairly banal English words and had to set them in a fairly limited manner, unable to make settings of English his own in quite the same way that his younger contemporary Byrd was able to do. Nevertheless, the Phrygian mode of the original is haunting and Monks’ reworking is impressive. I don’t always react favourably to this kind of reinterpretation of earlier music – Jan Garbarek’s realisations on ECM, Officum Novum* and its predecessors, leave me feeling profoundly depressed – but I found Kelly McCusker’s violin weaving around Anna Sanderson’s voice here very moving. As with most of the music here, both ancient and modern, from the soaring opening Salve Regina onwards, the epithet ‘ethereal’ is highly appropriate.
Even if you have the complete Byrd four-part Mass from which the Agnus Dei (tr.12) is excerpted or the complete Victoria Requiem whence Versa est (tr.10) is derived, you shouldn’t feel short-changed. You may, however, note that, as on Volume 1, slower tempi than usual are adopted for these and for most of the medieval and renaissance pieces, even by comparison with the Tallis Scholars, themselves no speed merchants.
The performance of Versa est takes 4:56 against the Scholars’ 4:37 – recently reissued in a wonderful budget- price 3-CD box to celebrate Victoria’s quatercentenary (GIMBX304) – and the Consort’s Agnus Dei weighs in at 4:05 against 3:20 (The Tallis Scholars sing William Byrd, 2 CDs for the price of one, CDGIM208). The contrast with The Sixteen in Victoria is even more extreme – they take just 4:05 for Versa est. (Coro CORSACD16033 or on a recent 4-CD set COR16089.) For all that the Consort milk some of the music in this way, the effect is highly attractive. The singing is excellent and the recording does it full justice.
If Naked Byrd and Naked Byrd 2 lead you to explore some of the composers further, so much the better. There’s nowhere better to start than with Hildegard’s music A Feather on the Breath of God – Hyperion CDA30009, the first of my top 30 choices from Hyperion – see review – now at mid price and no overlap with the works on Naked Byrd 2.
The booklet contains the texts and translations, though some of these are a little rough. Spiritus Sanctus (track 6) is especially inaccurate, with est (it is) mistaken throughout for es (you are). Substitute the following translation: ‘The Holy Spirit is the life which gives life;/moving all things, its root is found in all creation,/and it washes everything from impurity, wiping sins clean, it anoints wounds./Thus it is a shining and praiseworthy life,/awakening and re-awakening everything’. The text of Lotti’s Crucifixus etiam pro nobis (tr.8) is translated as ‘he was crucified even for us’ when etiam here means ‘also’, not ‘even’. This passage is especially familiar, since it is taken from the Nicene Creed, so the mistranslation is all the more inexplicable. At least the texts are there this time, when they were conspicuous by their absence from Volume 1.
Minor grumbles about the lack of Byrd in the programme and about the quality of the translations apart, this second volume may be confidently recommended. As with Volume 1, the works from widely different periods sit much better together than I might have predicted. If in any doubt, subscribers to the Naxos Music Library can try it first and read the booklet there.